5G vs. 4G: Key Differences Between Networks Explained

The fifth generation of mobile networking is here and getting more prominent by the day — despite the ongoing pandemic and the recent unsubstantiated rumors about the dangers of 5G. With the rise in remote working in 2020 and into 2021, the rollout of 5G network coverage may come faster than we’d anticipated as more activities move online. Already, all three of the major carriers have rolled out their nationwide networks and are set to expand and improve them over the next few years.

5G could eventually change the way we use technology. But is it really worth upgrading your 4G phone? It’s time to find out what you need to know about 5G technology and see if it’s really everything it’s cracked up to be.

5G vs. 4G: Speed

We’ve looked at how fast 5G is before, but there isn’t a specific speed we can expect. Instead, think of 5G as offering a speed range, and the actual speeds you get will depend on what network you’re connecting to, how busy it is, what device you’re using, and a few other factors. This table gives you a rough idea of the maximum speeds of each generation of cell network technology and the average speeds in the real world:

Generation 2G 3G 3G HSPA+ 4G 4G LTE-A 5G
Max speed 0.3Mbps 7.2Mbps 42Mbps 150Mbps 300Mbps-1Gbps 1-10Gbps
Average speed 0.1Mbps 1.5Mbps 5Mbps 10Mbps 15Mbps-50Mbps 50Mbps and up

Perhaps the average speed row above is more important than the max speed column — considering the fact that the maximum speeds here are theoretical, and you’ll probably never really hit those download speeds.

The topic is also complicated by the variety of different technologies that are used in each generation, geographical differences in coverage, and by the fact that the technology continues to evolve and improve over time. For example, 4G has improved significantly over its lifetime with the development of LTE (Long-Term Evolution) and then LTE-A (Long-Term Evolution Advanced). You can theoretically get up to 1Gbps with the latest 4G LTE-A developments, which is in the range of what 5G delivers. The average speeds you get in the real world will inevitably be much lower.

To put that speed into some kind of context, 1Gbps (gigabits per second) is 1,000Mbps (megabits per second). Confusingly, megabits are different from megabytes — there are 8 megabits (Mb) in a megabyte (MB). So, 1Gbps translates to 125MB per second. An MP3 file might be 5MB, while a TV episode might be 350MB, and a Blu-ray movie will be 15GB (15,000MB) or more. If you actually have a 1Gbps connection, you could potentially download a Full HD Blu-ray quality movie in two minutes.

If you actually have a 1Gbps connection, you could potentially download a Full HD Blu-ray quality movie in two minutes.

While 4G is still improving, what you get is, realistically, somewhere between 10Mbps and 50Mbps. If we look at Netflix recommendations for streaming speeds, it recommends 25Mbps for Ultra HD quality. You only need 5Mbps for HD. The aim with 5G is to hit 50Mbps as an average minimum — however, right now the minimum is quite a bit lower, and the average sits around 57Mbps, according to Speedcheck. It’s always nice to have faster speeds, but that’s not really the big attraction with 5G because 4G speeds are already pretty good. What 4G is not that great with is latency.

5G vs. 4G: Latency

Latency is the time it takes for data from your device to be uploaded and reach its target. It measures the time it takes for data to go from source to destination in milliseconds (ms). It’s very important for applications like gaming, where response time can have an impact on the outcome. It could also prove vital for self-driving cars if data is being transmitted to the cloud, and quick decisions can trigger a reaction to brake or avoid an obstacle in real time.

With 4G networks, you’re looking at an average latency of around 50ms. That could drop to 1ms with 5G technology. Just to give that some context, it takes at least 10ms for an image seen by the human eye to be processed by the brain. Low latency is vital for real-time reactions in machines or cars, and it could also make cloud gaming possible. Gamers could play via their phones on remote hardware, as services like Google’s Stadia and Blade’s Shadow are suggesting. A 1ms latency is what you can aspire to, as it’s possible in near-perfect scenarios. The average latency you can expect on 5G will likely be around 10ms.

Improvements in latency could prove to be the real driver of 5G adoption, but there are many challenges ahead.

5G vs. 4G: Coverage

Verizon 5G Node
Verizon 5G node. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It has taken years for 4G networks to spread across the world, and there are still plenty of rural areas relying on 3G networks. Even where there is 4G coverage, the speeds vary quite widely. We expect the full rollout of 5G networks to take a while; however, all three major carriers have made some pretty big advancements in 5G coverage over the past few months. All three of the major carriers now offer “nationwide” networks, based on the Sub-6 spectrum, and are set to build out those networks with other spectrum and wide coverage over the next year.

For the uninitiated, 5G is built with a full array of different radio frequencies. Sub-6 refers to frequencies under 6GHz, and these waves can generally travel long distances but can’t support ultra-high download speeds. On the other end of the spectrum is mmWave, which offers huge download speeds but can’t travel far or penetrate obstacles.

Initially, Verizon employed mmWave for its 5G network, and as such you could only really connect to Verizon 5G in some areas of some cities. Thankfully, the company now uses Sub-6 for its nationwide network, which is something T-Mobile did from the beginning.

Other differences between 5G and 4G

Samsung Galaxy S10 5g hands-on
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

For us to take advantage of 5G, we don’t just need carriers to put network equipment in place. We also need to buy devices, like the Motorola Edge Plus (exclusive to Verizon), that are capable of supporting 5G. If you’ve picked up one of the latest 5G handsets, you may be able to enjoy 5G speeds, depending on where you live. But if your phone is older, you’ll need to consider upgrading if you want these faster speeds. The first batch of 5G smartphones is here, and there are already some great choices available, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G or the OnePlus 8 Pro. It’s also worth noting that 5G is likely to be much more demanding in terms of power, and so battery life, which is already an issue for many, could be about to get worse.

5G doesn’t mean 4G is done

Many of us still rely on 3G when 4G isn’t available, and that’s exactly what will happen with 5G. The idea that 5G is a direct replacement for 4G is erroneous. In fact, it’s a complementary technology. With the two working in concert, we should be able to get good, or at least decent, speeds wherever we are.

It’s also important to remember that carriers continue to upgrade 4G networks, and that both download speeds and latency can be improved further. Even though carriers are spending more time and resources on 5G networks, 4G networks will likely continue to improve.

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